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The Difference one can make

The Importance of Character

Nicholas Winton acted in 1939 because he was a man of character. A lesser person might have walked away. This issue of character occupies my mind a lot these days. One can hardly turn on the television or open the newspapers and not be dismayed by the consequences of a serious erosion of it. elling the inspirational stories of heroes like Sir Nicholas is a necessary part of the effort to address the character deficit, but there is much more we must do. oward that end, the Mackinac Center is pleased to reprint here a commencement address I first delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Independent Day

School in Joplin, Missouri, on May 21, 2006.

  • Lawrence W. Reed

Twenty years ago, something quite remarkable happened in the little town of Conyers, Georgia

  • a town like Joplin in so many ways: full of salt-

of-the-earth, self-reliant and patriotic citizens though about one quarter your size in population. When school officials there discovered that one of their basketball players who had played 45 seconds in the first of the school’s five post-season games had actually been scholastically ineligible, they re- turned the state championship trophy the team had just won a few weeks before. If they had simply kept quiet, probably no one else would have ever known about it and they could have retained the trophy.

To their eternal credit, the team and the town, de- jected though they were, rallied behind the school’s decision. ๎že coach said, “We didn’t know he was ineligible at the time … but you’ve got to do what’s honest and right and what the rules say. I told my team that people forget the scores of the games; they don’t ever forget what you’re made of.”

In the minds of most, it didn’t matter that the championship title was forfeited. ๎že coach and the team were still champions — in more ways than one. Could you have mustered the courage under similar circumstances to do as they did?

Commencement addresses at both high schools and colleges are full of paeans and platitudes that re- duce to one cliché: “You are the future.” Well, that’s an important point but it’s also something we already know because it’s pretty self-evident, wouldn’t you say? So I’ll not tell you in a dozen different ways that

the future is yours. I have a different message.

I want to talk to you about one thing that is more important than all the good grades you’ve earned, more important than all the high school and college degrees you’ll accumulate, and indeed, more impor- tant than all the knowledge you’ll ever absorb in your lifetimes. It’s something over which every respon- sible, thinking adult has total, personal control and yet millions of people every year sacrifice it for very little. It will not only define and shape your future, it will put both a concrete floor under it and an iron ceiling over it. It’s what the world will remember you for more than probably anything else. It’s not your looks, it’s not your talents, it’s not your ethnicity and ultimately, it may not even be anything you ever say. What is this incredibly powerful thing I’m talking about? In a word, it’s character.

Character is what the coach and the players in Conyers, Georgia, possessed. And what an example they set! People like me who have never met them will be telling that story for a long, long time. People who do know them surely must admire and look up to them with great pride and respect. ๎žank God for people with character. ๎žey set the standard and exert a pressure on everyone to strive to meet it.

Here’s another example from personal experience: In my travels to some 67 countries around the world, I have witnessed many sterling examples of personal character (as well as the startling lack of it), but this is one of the best.

In 1989 I visited Cambodia with my late friend,

Mackinac Center for Public Policy • 9

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